Data And Artificial Intelligence: On Today’s Proposals Of The European Commission

The future is being written all around us, and the language of choice is not French or German or English; it’s software. The digital economy is global and the inventors of tomorrow will go to where the opportunities are best. They need access to capital, innovation-friendly rules, bright minds, strong markets, as well as raw materials like curated datasets and computing infrastructure.

Unfortunately, the latest commission proposal all but guarantees that the future will not be written in Europe.


On February 19, the European Commission adopted a comprehensive package on digital policy, including a new data strategy and a white paper on artificial intelligence. Rather than a bold vision for European leadership in the next wave of digital innovation, the EU seems poised to repeat past mistakes. If today’s proposals are left unchallenged, tomorrow’s digital champions – like today’s – might be Europeans, but they will be living and working somewhere else.

Europe Can Lead By Supporting The Digital Economy

Infrastructure, skills, and data are the digital raw material tomorrow’s economy will require. We are encouraged by the Commission’s support for investment in all these critical areas, and in the renewed commitment towards a single digital European marketplace. A fragmented European marketplace is the single biggest reason that none of today’s leading internet companies were born in the EU. Fix this, and we are halfway towards fulfilling the Commission’s vision.

Digital startups and SMEs are counting on the Commission fulfilling the broad sweep of the proposal’s goals; “to become a global leader in the data economy and its applications.” Maintaining a priority on the building, supporting, and empowering versus constraining, regulating, and slowing innovation will be the true test of whether the proposal’s ambition aligns with the Commission’s actual intentions. We strongly support the realistic and objective recognition that Europe is part of a global competition, where leadership in innovation – versus passive resistance – is the only effective way to shape the outcome.

We also share the Commission’s focus on online trust and the use of digital tools to help manage an increasingly complex digital world. Bold proposals like digital ID can help empower consumers to take a stronger hand in shaping how the digital economy evolves without resorting to burdensome, one-size-fits-all regulation.

While these broad programs for the promotion of innovation and competitiveness are exactly on point, we are deeply concerned by the innovation-damaging proposals that make up the bulk of today’s announcement. No matter how positive and progressive the preamble may be, it is negated by the long list of unfounded fears and unhelpful and restrictive government interventions that follow.

Overall, developers, digital startups and SMEs are poorly served by the Commission’s technophobic program.

Europe Cannot Lead In AI By Throwing Up Walls

The Commission should be focused on learning and understanding AI and the digital economy while preparing our citizens to capitalize and thrive in the next wave of innovation. Europe should be looking for ways to lead, not throwing up walls to keep the future out of European hands. If Europe wants to influence how the world evolves, they need to participate in making the future happen.

AI is not a robot from the far future. AI is already here, and it has been for some time. It’s in everyday devices and services, and it is the foundation of many of the most significant and impactful societal advances in the last few years. European software developers, large and small, are already working diligently to apply these new tools to previously intractable problems. They are making cities smarter and more energy-efficient. They are curing disease and improving patient outcomes. They are helping you shop, helping you learn, and keeping you safe. And they are doing it in Europe against fierce competitors in the U.S. and China.

We agree with the Commission that European values are a key factor in our future global success. Our shared values are already embodied in the regulatory fabric of the European Union. They are already at work guiding the development of AI and data science, and so far they have been up to the challenge. The questions the commission is asking are important, and it’s critical that we search out answers, but our advice is to watch and learn first, and only intervene later if we must.

There is no justification for attaching greater liability to a product-driven by a digital algorithm than to one driven by a human algorithm, especially when the digital algorithm itself is man-made. The existing sector-specific rules already in place are up to the task. Evidence-based regulation should not take a second seat to policies driven by fear of an unknowable future.

There is also no justification for automatically adding a layer of human second-guessing to systems built by experts using datasets that are far more comprehensive than any single human expert can easily absorb. Like people, algorithms are not infallible, but they can be corrected for bias and do not suffer from fatigue or wandering attention. Like any tool, we should apply them wisely and improve them continuously, but not by limiting them to our own flawed standards. 

Europe Cannot Lead By Socialising Data

Like a brilliant mind in a world without knowledge, an algorithm is worthless without data to work on. The EU has tremendous data assets found nowhere else in the world, an advantage we should leverage as we compete for our fair share of the digital economy. We strongly disagree with the proposal’s observation that the bulk of today’s data is closely held and consumer-focused; the data landscape is rich and varied and widely accessible for those that have put in the effort to explore it.

We are encouraged by Commission proposals to build up our data assets and to make them available to the developer community. Likewise, we are excited to hear that investments in training and education are part of the package being contemplated. Collaboration within data-centric business sectors, if it respects private competition and all its benefits, is a goal developers would embrace. The developer community would welcome the opportunity to work alongside other stakeholders in building up European capabilities in the areas of data science and AI.

On the other hand, we cannot support the mandated sharing of data assets between private actors. Setting aside the risks to personal privacy and the increasing likelihood of hacks and breaches as datasets converge, removing rights to curated data removes the commercial incentive to innovate. No private actor would invest in the grooming and analysis of hard-won data knowing that a competitor could then get it for free. Worse still, a socialized data system locked inside Europe would create a disincentive for leading AI innovators to remain in the EU.

For the digital startup and SME community, being limited to the EU market simply leads to irrelevance as the rest of the world innovates past us. At best, a wave of European digital colonialism would only serve to alienate our innovators in the rest of the world. Like it or not, Europe cannot win this race in isolation, but only by encouraging and embracing what is best in foreign inventiveness, and then merging it with our own. We believe that respect for European values includes at least some respect for the values of non-Europeans in their own homes.

It’s Not Too Late To Lead By Example 

The EU holds a tremendous amount of expertise in technology and science. So far, much of the energy towards capit
alizing on the future of AI has been spent by social scientists and policy experts on crafting barriers to success. Europe can do better – and we must.

The proposals released today are in large measure the Commission’s chosen response to an inevitably competitive technological future. No matter what Europe does, AI and the digital economy will move forward elsewhere unabated. All that is in question is Europe’s role. The quandary is clear in the text of these proposals: Is it better to hold technology back while Europe catches up, or bet on our innate abilities as inventors and industrialists? Can we trust EU member states to work together for the good of all?

Europe’s digital startups and SMEs are not looking for government handouts. While funding and support are welcome, success for Europe’s digital startups will come from a vibrant and accessible market here at home. A dynamic digital market in the EU will allow startups and SMEs to learn, to specialize, and to scale in advance of entering a competitive global market. What digital startups and SMEs ask for is a market without disadvantages, not one which helps them in Europe, but hurts them when they go global.

The developer community will be profoundly impacted by this proposal – no matter how it comes out. Developers stand ready to invest their time and energy in helping to build a space for their innovative ideas to grow, here at home. What developers cannot accommodate is a regulatory environment that makes it impractical to compete in a global digital market. For good or for ill, if the EU gets this wrong, our innovators will simply go to where innovation is rewarded. That is the technological future we truly should fear.

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By Bruce Gustafson

Bruce is the President and CEO of the Developers Alliance, the leading advocate for the global developer workforce and the companies that depend on them. Bruce is also the founder of the Loquitur Group, a DC consulting firm, and the former VP and head of the DC Policy office of Ericsson, a global information and communications technology company, focusing on IPR, privacy, IoT, spectrum, cybersecurity and the impact of technology and the digital economy. He has previously held senior leadership positions in marketing and communications at both Ericsson and Nortel, as well as senior roles in strategy and product management across wireless, optical and enterprise communication product portfolios.

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